While away vs. wile away

The phrase meaning to pass time idly is while away. It is older and more logical than wile away. But because the second phrase occurs so frequently, it is now included in many dictionaries and is rarely considered incorrect.

The OED has instances of while away going back to the early 18th century. The phrase employs a now archaic sense of while—namely, to fill up the time. Today, while is used only as a noun or conjunction (except in while away), and because 21st-century English speakers not used to seeing while as a verb, it’s easy to assume that wile away is the correct phrase.

But wile is mainly a noun—meaning (1) trickery, cunning; (2) a disarming or seductive manner; (3) or a trick intended to deceive—and it’s occasionally used as a verb meaning to influence by wile. None of these definitions has anything to do with idly passing time, so wile away doesn’t make logical sense. Again, however, it is now a conventionalized misspelling, and only the most persnickety readers will think it wrong.


Still, until a Red Web Redemption comes out, Shattered Dimensions looks to be a bright and diverting enough way for Spider-fans to while away a few hours. [Guardian]

You’re at the state fair gates at the crack of dawn Sunday, you get your armband at 8, and now you’ve got nine-plus hours to while away until you and 11,999 of your new best friends get in to see Justin Bieber . [Baltimore Sun]

11 thoughts on “While away vs. wile away”

  1. My understanding was that it means to “use your wiles to pass the time,” not anything tricky or deceitful. Hmm. … Don’t know if I’m a convert, having had my knuckles rapped a few times (mentally, at least) to enforce the necessity of wiling rather than whiling away my time.

  2. to beguile (I’m reading Othello) can me to divert someone by telling tales; letting the hours slop by pleasantly, to fool someone into wasting a few idle hours. I can see it being related to using ones wiles, not so much while- a totally different area of speech.

  3. The correct pronunciation of “wh” makes this unambiguous. “WH….” is classically pronounced as “HW”. Thus can we distinguish between whales and Wales, while and wile. It seems that only the Scottish and Irish can pronounce “wh” properly

  4. I was a product of the “old” school (many years pre-Sesame Street) of grammar, phonics and spelling. I am not entirely sure why it stuck with me. Perhaps it is just my temperament.

  5. What if you’re trying to pass time at work without actually doing work? Then you could use “wile” in that you are being deceptive and passing time. Like I am. Right now.


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